Before We Starve, Farmers Learn To Adapt From Other Farmers

As climate change continues unabated, growing crops in Maine will soon be like growing crops in South Carolina. Who better to teach Maine farmers how to adapt than the folks who already do it?

Before We Starve, Farmers Learn To Adapt From Other Farmers
Flickr user amboo who?

What do farmers in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and North America have in common? A lot more than they think because they may swap weather soon. As climate change accelerates, and greenhouse gas emissions exceed the UN’s worst-case scenarios, we are seeing new agricultural regions appearing, and disappearing, as warming fundamentally redraws the world’s agricultural map. A new study even projects that by 2100 emission trends could lead to “novel” climatic conditions across 12% to 40% of the world’s surface (and the disappearance of others).


To help prevent the more dire effects, researchers at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) recently released an agricultural “analogue tool” (PDF) that picks places today that will resemble conditions 30 or even 50 years from now. Farmers can start picking up new practices and crop species before they are tested by severe climate change.

For example, the mild winters in Los Angeles are likely to appear in the southeastern United States, France, northern Germany, and even the Netherlands by 2030. Soybean growers near Shanghai will likely be growing under conditions similar to Argentina and the central United States within 20 years. While that does not sound threatening, other comparisons are not so favorable. Tropical regions, where conditions are already hot and arid, or are entirely dependent on seasonal rainfall, will likely worsen to the point where no analogues exist for traditional farming; many such areas are desert or scrubland.

In Mali, for example, farmers have already seen traditional peanut varieties disappear as the rain season shrunk from four months to three; now a new fast-growing variety provided by agricultural researchers is being grown, reports Reuters. In the U.S., warmer temperatures means southern crops may grow up to the Canadian border, but products like maple syrup and other regional crops will be forced out of their old range, and warmer climates like Florida may see their crop species shift.

“The analogues tool is rooted in the basic notion that for centuries farmers have been innovating and adapting in response to shifting conditions, providing a rich source of information on how agricultural systems can adapt to climate change,” said Andy Jarvis, who is the lead researcher on the project, in a statement. “Our goal is to develop an inventory of local knowledge from around the world while linking regions that face similar challenges. We are in many ways turning the world into a laboratory for climate change adaptation.”

CIAT is planning a series of farmer exchanges in 2012 that will help farmers test new adaptation strategies that could be applied back home. Their first focus will be between South Asia and East and West Africa.

“The climate analogues approach to adaption reinforces the broader message that maintaining food security in a world of dramatic and accelerated climate shifts will require a new commitment to global cooperation,” said Jarvis.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.